Montclair State Film Series Presents Heartbreaking Family Stories with ‘Torn Apart: Separated at the Border’

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Published October 13, 2020
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"Torn Apart: Separated at the Border" shows the harsh reality of families who try to cross the border into the United States. Photo courtesy of HBO

Directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent, “Torn Apart: Separated at the Border” is a documentary that highlights the harsh and terrifying reality that hundreds of thousands of immigrants face when trying to cross the border into the United States.

The documentary follows the stories of two single mothers who tried to flee the gruesome violence that threatened their lives in their home country. In the process of seeking asylum in the United States, both women were detained and separated from their children for months.

This film documents these heartbreaking stories, while also showing the decisions made by politicians and judges that perpetuate this situation even further.

Montclair State University’s Film Forum class had a chance to attend a virtual Q&A session with Kent herself.

“I’ve done films about a lot of things,” Kent said. “I mostly do films about things I don’t know.”

https://www.hbo.com/video/documentaries/torn-apart-separated-at-the-border/videos/trailer

Kent had to do a lot of research on asylum seeking. She made sure that her crew was made up of people with a Latinx background so that she could get a better understanding of the culture and have help communicating with the two families.

“Everybody on my team was a Spanish speaker,” Kent said. “A native Spanish speaker. Everybody. And that made a massive difference.”

The two mothers, María and Vilma, express their longing to reunite with their children who are miles away from them, as any parent would. When Vilma reunites with her 11-year-old daughter, Yeisvi, the two share a profoundly emotional moment.

Sierra Craig, a senior journalism major, asked Kent how decisions were made on which intimate moments were appropriate to capture as to not ruin or impede on the reunion.

Kent explained that capturing these scenes presented a challenge to her team.

“We want to capture those emotional, unguarded moments,” Kent said. “And you know sometimes it’s the wrong thing to do, to be there, unless you really believe that you can stay out of the way and let people have that moment together and not interrupt it in some way.”

Kent revealed that she was unable to film one family’s reunion because the shelter that kept the child did not want journalists inside the facility.

“I found that unacceptable,” Kent said. “I believe they didn’t want us to capture the reunions because the kids were crying and terrified and terrorized.”

Kent strategically takes an authentic and humanistic approach when interviewing the families. In one part of the film, Yeisvi is seen coloring on the floor of her bedroom in her foster family’s home. It is in this natural and calm environment that she recalls the horrific things she witnessed her mother endure back in Guatemala.

"Torn Apart: Separated at the Border" is a film directed by Ellen Goosenberg.
Photo courtesy of HBO

"Torn Apart: Separated at the Border" is a film directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent.
Photo courtesy of HBO

There are many shots of the crowded, utilitarian facilities and detention centers in which immigrants are detained. Adults and children are seen clinging to the fences they are trapped behind with fear and sadness in their eyes.

Most documentaries are a mix of journalism and storytelling and focus on providing facts over opinions. While Kent does provide plenty of credible facts and statistics, her thoughts on how the United States government handles immigration are evident.

Divya Rana, a senior political science major, expressed her concern about keeping biases in check, asking how Kent is able to keep her beliefs separate from the story.

Kent explained that whether or not she wants to keep her opinions to herself can vary depending on the film. With this film, however, she wanted to convey one chief idea to viewers.

“I think this [the United States government’s handling of immigration] is an atrocity and I want to document it so that this doesn’t happen again,” Kent said. “And no one can pretend like it didn’t happen, or it’s fake news or something like that.”

A 39-minute cap was met by Kent for HBO to accept and produce the film. The price of a limited runtime was paid with an obviously rushed storyline. Had Kent gone for an expanded runtime, the pacing would have been much smoother.

A longer film-cut could have also presented another experience from a different family, providing a variation of stories instead of just two. The stories themselves were enough to keep me watching, but I was left wanting more.

“Torn Apart: Separated at the Border” can be eye-opening for those who are unfamiliar with how immigrants at the border are cruelly treated by government officials. For those who can personally relate to this, it can be emotionally excruciating to watch.

Offering a visceral sense of hope and anticipation for the two families to be safe together from beginning to end, this film is a heartbreaking watch for any viewer.

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